Learned helplessness is darker (and less understood) than you think

May 3, 2018

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As a psychological theory, 'learned helplessness' has an even worse origin story than the grittiest Batman reboot you can imagine. But the story also has a deeper meaning that's often lost in the telling.


Learned helplessness is often misconstrued.

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As a psychological theory, 'learned helplessness' has an even worse origin story than the grittiest Batman reboot you can imagine. But the story also has a deeper meaning that's often lost in the telling.

The gritty origin story behind learned helplessness

In the 1960's, research ethics were a lot looser than nowadays. You might have read about Harry Harlow's experiments, tearing baby rhesus monkeys from their parents and slapping them on wire frames fitted with milk bottles to see if the babies would notice (spoiler alert: they super did). Well, learned helplessness comes out of a similarly distressing paradigm. Read on at your own emotional peril.

Martin Seligman, Steven Meier, Bruce Overmier, and almost certainly a bunch of unnamed research students, were interested classical conditioning. This is the kind of learning that happens when you pair a reflex with something neutral. You see the Boost juice sign and your mouth starts watering, that sort of thing. Except in their experiments, there was less juice and more electrocution.

By pairing the sound of a bell to an electric shock, they learned that dogs would eventually start to react to the bell as they would to the shock (i.e. with doggy displeasure). Taking the experiment further, they split the dogs into three groups. In one group, the dogs could stop the shock by pressing a lever. Another group had no control over the shock. The third group weren't shocked at all. After a while, the experimenters put the dogs into a kind of big cage. When the bell rang, one side of the cage would be shocked (leaving the other side unshocked, or 'safe'). Both the dogs that weren't shocked in the previous experiment and the dogs that had control over the shocks quickly learned to jump to the 'safe' side of the cage to escape the shock. In fact, if you watch videos of the thing, these dogs eventually start to look positively bored as they get up and pad calmly over to the 'safe' side and go back to sleep. However, a large number of the dogs that had no control over the shock in the previous experiment never learned this - they instead appeared to give up, often just laying down and whining when the bell rang.

The conclusion Seligman and his colleagues came to was that these dogs had learned that the shock was inevitable. They had learned that they were helpless. And indeed, over the course of a number of follow up experiments, it was found that the 'helpless' dogs had trouble learning about the 'safe' side by any means. The only consistent success were occasions where the experimenters physically moved the dogs to the 'safe' side a couple of times.

The darker truth hiding under the surface

These experiments set the stage for many of the ideas we have about maladaptive thinking today. The recurring idea is that humans, as with these dogs, might go through some series of unfortunate events and in the course of doing so, learn that they have no control over the bad things that happen to them. This thinking goes on to lead to problems like depression or anxiety. The depressed person learns, for example, that things will never get better, or bad things always happen. This of course, amplifies their feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

I generalise here, but you get the gist I hope. This finding, in which dogs (and later other animals too) seem to give up hope, has been intellectualised into complicated theories about how humans process negative life events and perceive their own agency and self-efficacy. Attribution theory is one branch of psychology that has really run with the idea. The attribution theorist might say something like a socially anxious individual makes 'stable', 'internal' attributions about their negative social interactions - a fancy way of saying that they feel like they always screw up talking to other people because they think they're bad at talking to other people. But these sorts of complicated theories hide a couple of key features of this original finding by Seligman and his colleagues.

Firstly, I would be extremely surprised to find out that Seligman's dogs were thinking about such heady concepts as personal agency and making judgements about their locus of control. The technical jargon that has sprung up around, or co-opted learned helplessness hides the fact that if this kind of thinking is going on, it's probably happening on a level that isn't really what you would commonly consider thought. In humans, this bias eventually seems to bubble up into our consciousness, but the really meaty work is almost certainly happening long before we ever put words to it. Of course, no clinician or researcher worth their salt thinks anything different. But just talking this way tends to lead us to believe that these things are easier to understand, access, and fix than they really are. Which brings us to point two:

In the telling, a crucial part of the story often gets left out. This is that only some of the dogs who had no control learned that they were helpless and gave up. Others learned about the 'safe' side of the cage just about as fast as the dogs who did have control. What's the difference, you ask? Good question hypothetical reader. It's becoming less common, but I'm sure you've been exposed to the idea that people who have problems like depression and anxiety are somehow weaker than other people. Maybe they were raised too gently, or didn't apply themselves as hard during tough times. Maybe they haven't read enough self-help books. Maybe they're just genetically inferior in some way. It's a little harder to make these kinds of claims when we're talking about laboratory animals. I mean, first of all, try telling a dog it doesn't apply itself enough, and see how dopey you feel.

But more compellingly, the point of using lab animals is to minimise developmental, social, environmental, and often physical differences as much as possible. Now, I don't claim to know under what condition Seligman's dogs were raised. But the point here is that when you try to apply these human concepts like depression or anxiety, or just the very idea of maladaptive thinking patterns, to animals who are acting in similar ways, all of a sudden it becomes much harder to understand what's going on. Why do some dogs learn to be helpless, and why do others resist? I don't have the answers, but it's certainly worth thinking about.

The redeeming light at the end of the story

As much as I'm opposed to electrocuting dogs, it seems particularly timely to rehash the origins of these hugely influential theories of cognition. At a time where the issues that have plagued psychological research for years are coming to a head, and many classic findings are being questioned, returning to the fundamentals often brings old knowledge back into the light. In this case, we relearn what we've always kind of known:
  • when we talk about 'maladaptive thinking patterns' and life stressors and whatnot, what we really mean is that somewhere deep down, something has gone wrong, and the words we use to try and describe it might not ever quite do the problem justice
  • that we aren't ever really done understanding why these things happen
  • that people who suffer from problems like this deserve our respect, especially given the last two points

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, that dogs can get what looks a lot like depression and we should love them so, so much.

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